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February 11, 2004

Equal Access For Wheelchair Athletes?

FROM CHAMPAIGN ILLINOIS COMES WORD of a growing movement in college athletics. It is currently tiny and barely noticed, but gaining adherents, advocates and activists steadily. This movement is for greater access and equality for athletics for disabled college students.

Wheelchair basketball is the most visible of sports for disabled student-athletes, but there are others (swimming, softball, fencing, track, etc.). In most places, wheelchair basketball is akin to youth hockey wherein they end up with the early (or late hours) for a gym--often a pre-war armory-style facility with poor heating system and uneven lighting.

The wheelchair hoopsters at the University of Illinois, the birthplace of wheelchair basketball, are the elite of an expanding network of wheelchair basketball teams. Nine players will compete in the Paralympic Games in Athens, to be held right after the Olympic Games. They travel (by bus) to several neighboring states for games.

However, their status as varsity athletes is a murky one. While they get scholarships and access to academic tutoring, they do not get the other perks accorded to “regular” student-athletes—such as assistant coaches, dedicated facilities, uniforms, publicity, etc. At Illinois the sole coach has both the men’s and women’s teams.

Advocates for the physically disabled are hopeful of a compromise before resorting to litigation. Although the initial appeal is for basic fairness, athletic departments facing budget cuts are hard pressed to find more money for disabled athletics funding.

The program at the University of Missouri provides an illustration of the funding involved. The wheelchair basketball team will have $50,000 to award in scholarships, plus a coach is being hired. Meanwhile, the varsity men's basketball team received $199,425 for scholarships in 2001-2, and the varsity women got $201,228.

If compromise does not work, then there is the looming threat of extending protections--similar to Title IX that changed women’s sports so dramatically--to cover disabled student-athletes as well. Many observers think that a strong case could be made for disabled athletics funding if the issue found its way to the courts. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is strikingly similar to the 1972 Education Amendments of Title IX to ban discrimination against women.

"Look at the reasons given for not allowing women to participate --they can't run because it would hurt them; their bodies won't take it," says Lisa Mastandrea, a former Illinois wheelchair-basketball athlete. "There's definitely a parallel with women's situations."

Furthermore, bringing disabled athletics into the purview of collegiate athletic departments would be very symbolic. It would elevate the status and legitimacy of disabled athletics.

Wheelchair basketball utilizes an interesting classification system to insure parity between teams on the court at all times. Players with hip mobility are rated a category 3 under American wheelchair-basketball rules. Hip mobility allows players to sit up straight, thus shooting and rolling are enhanced.
Players with less mobility are designated as 2's or 1's, based on the severity of their paraplegia. Players rated 2 sit in a lower chair that tips them backward slightly, with more stability but less height. Players who are 1's are tipped further back, making them the shortest. However, players with missing legs or paralyzed since birth are usually the lightest and fastest. Under American rules, at any given time the classifications must total 12.

If this rule were applied to the NBA, perhaps Michael Jordan would have had to take the court alone on behalf of his entire team? Or maybe 326th ranked, 1-15 Nichols State would be allowed a dozen players on the floor simultaneously?

Disabled athletes mention another classification: "AB." That stands for "able bodied." At any level of sport, and at any age, classifications tend not to go very far down the spectrum from “AB.” And that certainly includes college athletics. But it is fervently thought that college athletics could be the beginning of widespread athletics participation by athletes classified at the end of the spectrum opposite the “ABs.”

Coach Michael Frogley of Illinois says. “We've developed the notion that everyone has value, but we still don't fully provide opportunities.”

(excerpted from The Chronicle of Higher Education 2-13-04; with added commentary by College Athletics Clips)